Have We Reached a Tipping Point on Guns?
The February 14 shooting in the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, reminded us once again about the horrific toll of gun violence on the United States. This was the 18th school shooting in the US this year; in Parkland, 17 students were killed and about as many were injured. The shooter used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the same weapon used in many other high-profile mass shootings, including Sandy Hook. Perhaps in a sign of how sadly commonplace these events have become, we featured this gun on the cover of the 2016 edition of SPH This Year; aiming to bring attention then—as we do now—to the importance of limiting access to all guns, and to guns of war in particular, to limit the harmful consequences of firearms. These guns have been widely available in the United States ever since Congress allowed the federal assault weapons ban to expire in 2004.
In many ways, this shooting feels like so many other shootings before it, and we titled a previous Dean’s Note on the issue Guns, Again, reflecting perhaps that sense of futility. After all, we have seen the outpouring of interest that followed the horrific Newtown school shootings, Orlando Pulse shootings, and the Las Vegas shooting, and about any number of the mass shootings that happen in the US on average 9 out of every 10 days of the year. We know that mass shootings are only a very small fraction, less than 2 percent of the problem of all firearm deaths. If even these events cannot galvanize action, what can?
And yet, something unexpected seems to be happening after the Parkland shootings. The students from the Stoneman Douglas High School, Generation Z members who are native to digital media, have taken hold of the national stage, aiming to hold the political system accountable on guns. Despite some deeply cynical attempts to stop these students, they have persisted. A galvanizing town hall event, broadcast on CNN, brought to the fore truly remarkable scenes of high school students standing tall in the face of deeply seated opposition by elected officials and the National Rifle Association (NRA). At core the students recognize what the science has long told us: that we will not make any dent on the firearm epidemic in this country unless we address the extraordinary number of guns available in the country, that other efforts to distract attention from this issue are simply smokescreens from the core need to limit the widespread availability of weapons that can be used readily by anyone with harmful intent.
The students’ show of force has been, in and of itself, extraordinary. But even more so has been that slowly, we are seeing changes that are, simply put, unprecedented. Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, two of the largest gun sellers in the country have just announced that they are going to limit gun sales to those over 21. Dick’s Sporting Goods also announced that it would limit sales of assault style weapons, like the AR-15. And, perhaps in the most surprising move of all, President Trump, who received about $40 million from the NRA during his campaign, met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and expressed support for a “comprehensive” gun bill that would strengthen background checks and ways to remove guns from those who are potentially at high risk of causing others harm.
The extent to which these changes will make a difference remains to be seen, and clearly the effort that is most needed is federal and legislative. Recent history teaches us that it is unlikely that the President will follow through on his statements and that these efforts will result in meaningful legislative change in the short term, but the very existence of first talks is a step that was unimaginable two weeks ago.
This, deeply heartening, turn of events, brings up two questions to my mind.
First, is this truly a tipping point in efforts to promote gun safety in this country?
Ultimately, of course, only time will tell. But what is promising here is the confluence of circumstances that suggest that it is possible that an incident can lead to change where other incidents have not. Recent efforts such as Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement have shown that decades of work and effort can capitalize on high-profile events to bring about discontinuities in our national conversation. The #metoo movement has brought to the fore the issue of sexual misconduct that we have long known existed, long known was unacceptable, and long known that it should have been part of the national conversation. It would have been hard to predict that the misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein would lead to a global reckoning with the issue. Ultimately these movements show that the path to change and progress is complex, and that it takes decades of laying the foundations, of science producing the evidence, of careful observers translating this evidence, in order for the right moment to truly galvanize public opinion and action, leading to change. In many respects, this is part of the narrative we have previously discussed about how we, as an academic institution, work to make the previously acceptable, unacceptable. The firearm epidemic has been acceptable to the country (and indeed the number of deaths from firearms have hardly budged since 2000, with an uptick in the past year), despite decades of evidence about the consequences of guns. Now Parkland offers hope that these data become unacceptable, and a glimpse into how social movements emerge, informed by scholarship, educated by effective translational work, and shaped by smart activism responsive to contemporary issues that present opportunities for action.
Second, what can we do to help push forward efforts to promote gun safety that we have long called for?
Our role as a school within a university does not, to my mind change. As I have commented previously, our role remains first and foremost to generate knowledge and transmit that knowledge to our students so that the next generation can be ready to push ideas forward in their time. But we also have a role as a school of public health to translate this knowledge to the end of improving the health of populations. These three roles we have captured in our Think. Teach. Do. Core purpose, and we have endeavored to build a school where translation stands alongside our aspiration to generate knowledge and transmit that knowledge to our students. Our work on an activist public health agenda, centered around the work of the Activist Lab, aims to do just that—to create an opportunity for action to complement our scholarship and work in education.
To this end, the Activist Lab has been involved in helping catalyze action around this issue. On March 14, in concert with the #Enough National School Walkout, we are organizing an opportunity for our community to take part in a #nationalschoolwalkout for 17 minutes at 10 a.m., to continue pressing for congressional action on firearms. On that day, 10 a.m. classes will start at 10:30 a.m. so that students and faculty can indeed walk out if they choose to without adversely affecting academic performance. Second, on that same day, we will be hosting a Dean’s Seminar on Contemporary Public Health Issues around the issue of gun violence and potential advocacy. The event, from 1 to 2:15 p.m. in Hiebert Lounge, aims to provide a primer on the science and on advocacy efforts that can help push for change on this issue. Third, the school will be a part of the national March for Our Lives in Boston Common, meeting as a group at the State House steps at 11:30 a.m.. We are grateful to the Activist Lab for their leadership on this.
I have written previously about the balance I feel we must strike between our role as careful and honest analysts of the data, producing excellent science always, and our role as a school with clear aspirations to generate population health. I have also, however, written about our moral responsibility to comment when contemporary circumstance conspires to hurt the health of the public. This represents a different moment, a moment in time where there is an opportunity to amplify what we have long learned through our science: that the firearm epidemic will not abate unless efforts are made to change the availability of guns in the country. That seems to me entirely in line with the responsibility of a school of public health, one we take seriously indeed.
Until next week.
Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor
Boston University School of Public Health
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Meaghan Agnew for her inspiring this Dean’s Note, the Activist Lab for leading us on our response to issues of contemporary concern, and the members of the school community who produce the science, teach the students, and focus our attention on issues of consequence for the health of the public.
Previous Dean’s Notes are archived at: http://www.bu.edu/sph/tag/deans-note/